I love London. I lived there back in the 1990s and again 2011 – 2015, and I still go back every few months. The city is rich with layers of history and it has been my muse for a number of novels.
Tourists flock to the Tower or the V&A, but there are plenty of unusual things to see in London once you get off the beaten track. After all, a city doesn’t exist for centuries without attracting the macabre, the eccentric, and the downright strange…
So if you like art, history, or just the darker side of life, here are 25 quirky attractions to visit if you’re visiting the best city in the world!
(1) Hunterian Museum
This grisly museum hides inside the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It houses a range of medical specimens, anatomical anomalies and vicious instruments. Free to visit, it’s a quirky collection that’s not for the faint-hearted. We’re talking babies in jars, diseased human body parts and grotesque animals. It’s also the perfect place for a murder scene, as Detective Jamie Brooke discovers in Desecration, when the body of an heiress is found amongst the anatomical specimens.
(2) Sir John Soane Museum
This architectural wonderland lies just across the park from the Hunterian, preserving past objects rather than body parts. Also free to visit, this townhouse is a treasure trove of finds including art, antiquities, and ancient sculptures. You can see architect Sir John Soane’s inspiration for the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery. Don’t miss the giant sarcophagus in the basement, which features in Ark of Blood, when Morgan Sierra hunts for clues to the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant. I’ve written more about John Soane here.
(3) Highgate Cemetery
Highgate was one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries designed to ease the overcrowding in London’s churchyards. Its West Cemetery boasts the famous Egyptian Avenue, the Circle of Lebanon, and eerie catacombs. Karl Marx rests across the lane in the East Cemetery. According to urban legends, Highgate played host to a vampire in the 1970s. You can see more of my photos of Highgate and other cemeteries here on Flickr.
(4) The Old Operating Theatre
Hidden in a forgotten Southwark garret above St Thomas Church, the Old Operating Theatre is all that remains of the old St Thomas’ Hospital. Hunched at the top of a narrow staircase, is the women’s theatre. The surgical ward for female patients would have lain beyond the far wall and hundreds of students would have watched the surgical procedures. You can now stand in their place and watch fascinating talks about the equipment by museum curators, or examine the collection of potions and instruments.
I visited it as part of my research for the anatomical history featured in Desecration. I even did a ‘death drawing’ class there. It’s an awesome, grisly place!
(5) Chelsea Physick Garden
The oldest botanic garden in London opened in 1673. The nearby river Thames contributes to a special micro-climate that enables the gardeners to grow rare and endangered species. The garden contains some 5000 medicinal plants – as well as some notorious toxic specimens like monkshood and deadly nightshade, used as poisons.
(6) The Freemason’s Hall
The Freemasons’ Hall is the headquarters for the United Grand Lodge of England. It’s a Grade II listed building, and some of its halls are open to the public … although there are doors you’re not allowed to enter. After all, this is a society with secrets.
You can join a free guided tour to see the Library, Museum and Grand Temple. The Hall is an unusual attraction and Morgan Sierra visits it in Ark of Blood, because it’s rumored to contain part of the Ark of the Covenant. I went on a tour there and found the symbolism fascinating.
(7) British Museum
This might seem like an obvious tourist destination, but the British Museum has plenty of quirky exhibits. Wander through the Enlightenment Gallery’s cabinet of curiosities, where you can find molten lava thought to be from Sodom & Gomorra. Or meet Hoa Hakananai’a, the imposing moai from Easter Island. You can also see famous exhibits like the Rosetta Stone and ancient Egyptian mummies.
I’m fascinated by the British Museum and my frequent visits have meant that it appears in a number of books. Day of the Vikings is based on a Viking exhibition there, Crypt of Bone was inspired by a religious relic exhibition, and Blake Daniel from the London Crime Thriller series works there, sensing the history of objects through the scars on his hands. It will definitely inspire more books in the future!
(8) Crypt Gallery at St Pancras Church
How often do you see art exhibitions in a crypt? Since 2002, St Pancras Church’s crypt has hosted a range of exhibitions and installations by contemporary artists. The porch outside has gorgeous caryatid sculptures, as picture below. The remains of 557 Londoners are still interred there, so you may wonder what they think of it all.
(9) Jeremy Bentham’s Skeleton
Philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham inspired the founding of University College. He loved the institution so much that he asked to be preserved and displayed there after death. His body now sits in a cabinet in the South Cloisters of the main building. Occasionally he is taken into meetings. The minutes reveal that he’s recorded as being present, but not voting.
(10) Crossbones Cemetery
Crossbones Cemetery in Southwark was once a graveyard for the Bishop of Winchester’s prostitutes, known as geese, and their illegitimate children. The red iron gates are now a shrine for ‘the outcast dead’ and people tie ribbons to the bars in remembrance. There are also rituals and performances there every Halloween. You can’t go inside the graveyard but there’s currently a petition to have the cemetery turned into a Garden of Remembrance. My novel, Deviance, was inspired by Crossbones and the opening scene is set at a memorial march there.
(11) Wellcome Collection
The Wellcome Collection is one of the most underrated attractions in London. Described as ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’, it’s perfect for those interested in medicine and history. You can register as a reader in the library, which is where I did a lot of the research and writing for Delirium. It’s not open on Mondays.
When I visit London these days, you’ll often find me in the reading room or in their cafe. The Blackwells bookstore downstairs is one of my favourites as it stocks death culture and anatomy books, which are my addiction!
(12) The Horniman Museum
The overstuffed walrus is definitely one of the more unusual things to see in London. Set in 16 acres of gorgeous gardens, this south London museum is worth a visit if you like your anthropology and natural history on the quirky side. With no touch screens in sight, the most interaction you’re likely to get comes from the collection of musical instruments.
(13) Amphitheatre under the Guildhall
It’s easy to forget that London was a Roman city. But the ancient civilisation left something behind. If you descend into the bowels of the Guildhall Art Gallery, you can see the remains of the Roman amphitheatre that would have dominated the area. The extent of the amphitheatre is picked out in a ring of black stone in the courtyard at street level.
(14) Temple Church
Made famous by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the Temple Church is one of the more unusual things to see in London. Built by the Knights Templar, it features a circular nave, designed to reflect Jerusalem’s circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the graves of knights long past. It still holds services and is open to the public. We saw a play there one freezing winters night.
(15) Pollock’s Toy Museum
It’s amazing how creepy toys can be when they’re collected into one place. Pollock’s Toy Museum manages that spectacularly! Explore old dolls’ houses, board games and puppets – and meet the world’s oldest teddy. The building itself, a pair of unrestored Georgian townhouses, is the perfect setting for this quirky museum.
(16) The London Library
Established in 1841, the London Library is a bibliophile’s paradise. Favoured by the likes of Tom Stoppard, Bram Stoker, and Tennyson, the eccentric classification system encourages random browsing. It has 15 miles of open-access shelves so you might be there for a while. A temporary reference pass is £15, and they run free guided tours on weekday evenings. I wrote a number of books in the London Library as a Member when I lived in London. Here’s a little video of me working there.
(17) The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History
Travel to Hackney’s Mare Street to find this quirky curiosity shop and art gallery. Home to the Last Tuesday Society which runs macabre events, expect surreal exhibitions and specimens you’d find in a cabinet of curiosities. The museum follows pre-Enlightenment ideals and uses no form of classification, so you can make your own sense of the items on display.
(18) Kensal Green Cemetery
The first of the Magnificent Seven, Kensal Green Cemetery is home to royalty, and luminaries such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, John Tenniel, Wilkie Collins, and Blondin. The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery offer a range of themed tours to visit the famous people that rest there. You can also venture into the catacombs beneath the Dissenter’s Chapel. I visited Kensal Green and it features in a scene in Delirium. You can see more of my pictures of graveyards here.
(19) Freud Museum
The companion to his Vienna museum, this London home captures Sigmund Freud’s life after he left Austria in 1938. As well as the infamous couch brought here from his Vienna consulting room, you can also see his collections of almost 2000 Egyptian, Greek and Roman items, including the gods on his desk. His study is preserved as Freud would have known it and is the main attraction of the museum. I visited the museum in 2012 as part of my research for Ark of Blood, and Freud’s collection features an important clue for the story …
(20) The British Library
The British Library is home to some of the literary treasures of the world including notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci, the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest copies of the Greek Bible, the Magna Carta, and modern treasures like handwritten lyrics by the Beatles. They also have the Lindisfarne Gospels, which feature in Day of the Vikings, and frequently do incredible exhibitions. A must-visit location for bibliophiles.
(21) Little Venice Canal boats and the floating book barge
If the tourist throng of London gets too much for you, head down to the canals. Walking along the waterways is one of my favorite things to do in London and you can pop up in all kinds of exciting places. You might even find Word on the Water, the London book barge, and you’ll definitely want to stop in Little Venice for a drink and watch the canal life go by.
(22) Barts Pathology Museum
If you’re an anatomy fan as I am, you’ll love Barts Pathology museum. It’s rarely open to the public as it’s full of specimens that require preservation, but when it is open, it’s definitely worth a visit. The viewing room has several tiers of shelving and a glass window that lets the light in. Beautiful architecture and macabre specimens! There are sometimes taxidermy classes, death culture fairs and I also attended a book discussion there for Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty.
(23) The Hardy Tree
Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure inspired me at an early age. His city of Christminster was modelled on Oxford and it made me want to go to University there. I ended up going to Mansfield College, University of Oxford 1994 – 1997 to study Theology and the city is in a number of my books.
But before he was a novelist, Thomas Hardy worked on the railways in London. He was assigned the job of organizing the reburial of remains that had to be moved for the new railway line into St Pancras station. He arranged the gravestones in an unusual pattern around a tree. I wonder what else is hidden under there …
(24) The Sculpture Gallery at the V&A
There are some amazing things in London’s museums, but I particularly like the sculpture cast gallery at the V&A. It has casts of some of the great edifices and sculptures from around the world. I love the Michelangelo ‘horned’ Moses from St Peter in Vincoli, Rome. The horns come from a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for ‘shining’ and it’s always amazing to see a Biblical figure with horns.
(25) Walk along South Bank from Borough Market to Waterloo
I live in Bath now in the west of England, but when I go up to London and the sun is out, this is my favourite walk. Get off the Tube at London Bridge, head for Borough Market to pick up a snack and then walk along the edge of the Thames.
You’ll pass the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tate Modern and you can watch the life on the water. This area of Southwark is the inspiration for Deviance, and definitely a must-do if you’re in the city.
[Written by Icy Sedgwick, adapted by J.F.Penn for Books and Travel. Photos by J.F.Penn. See more on www.instagram.com/jfpennauthor ]
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